Current Cardinals coach Bruce Arians (right) hugs Colts coach Chuck Pagano last season during Indianapolis' memorable season.
James Bettcher's role was unique with the Indianapolis Colts, because he not only was coaching the team's outside linebackers but also working essentially as head coach Chuck Pagano's right-hand man, and that's how he found himself sitting in Pagano's office the Wednesday of the Colts' bye week last season listening to news that would change not only the season but life.
Pagano told Bettcher he was headed to the hospital for more testing. Leukemia was suspected.
"I have a pretty strong relationship with him, and it's one of those things there is nothing you can say," said Bettcher, now the Cardinals' outside linebackers coach. "Your stomach falls out. Your mind goes blank. You're almost emotionless because it hits you in the face so hard."
That moment took the Colts on a journey that impacted the course of two teams. For Indianapolis, the season turned into a
dream for offensive coordinator-turned-interim-coach Bruce Arians. He guided them through the emotions (and a ton of injuries) to the playoffs as Pagano fought and eventually beat his cancer, returning at the end of the season. Arians was named NFL coach of the year.
And it was that ride that led Arians to be interviewed for the vacant head coaching job in Arizona, where Arians was hired and brought along assistants like Bettcher and Harold Goodwin and players like cornerback Jerraud Powers.
Sunday, the Colts visit University of Phoenix Stadium, a game Arians admitted he wished was not on the schedule.
"Too many emotional ties to what happened last year," Arians acknowledged. "I'm just glad we are playing here and not there. That would be tough to walk into that stadium."
Pagano was more guarded, insisting the Colts just want to focus on the game coming up. It makes sense, given that both Indianapolis (7-3) and the Cardinals (6-4) are trying to position themselves for the playoffs.
To think this game won't carry additional meaning, however, is probably foolish.
"There is going to be every emotion," Bettcher said. "You want to win period. And you don't blow it out of proportion with your players. But the emotion level will be much higher. You will see some faces that went through with you that went through, something that you'll never go through again."
Arians as interim coach made a lot of sense to everyone. He was 60 but his ability to relate to everyone – on both sides of the ball – resonated.
"He has an incredibly young soul," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said, and Powers added that everyone on the team had learned by then it was easy to talk to their new boss. Arians made it a point that Pagano was still the coach, making sure his office light remained on as a beacon of their leader.
"Everybody knew Chuck wanted to be there," Powers said. "So we used it as a motivational tool. If there were days when guys didn't feel like practicing or slacking here and there there, B.A. kept Chuck's office light on and he'd just point at that office light and say, 'That guy is dying to be here, literally.' That motivates you."
Nothing changed. Goodwin, the Colts' offensive line coach who is now the Cardinals' offensive coordinator, said Pagano had arrived in Indy with a set schedule. Arians did not touch it.
"We didn't tweak anything," Goodwin said. "I think it helped everyone stay focused. Every day we thought about him and the battle he was going through. But we did what he told us to do from Day One."
"We didn't miss a beat," Luck said.
Even now with the Cardinals, Goodwin said, Arians is "pretty much the same guy" that piloted the Colts.
Bettcher visited Pagano in the hospital every other day, often finding the coach studying video and asking Bettcher questions of why the staff was doing what it was doing or finding ways to criticize or praise a player. In other words, coaching a little.
The relief felt late in the season, when Pagano returned to the sideline and then the Colts making the playoffs, was something that couldn't be replicated.
Inevitably, the story was going to resurface once this game appeared on the schedule. Pagano sounded almost weary of reliving it again, repeatedly talking about focusing on the game at hand.
"It was such a unique situation because there was no handbook," Arians said. "(But) there are times to let it go. Hopefully after this week we can let some of it go, but never let go of the triumph that Chuck beat that leukemia. Never lose sight of that."
In early 2012, Arians thought his career was over. He was out as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a move announced at the time as his retirement. Then Pagano called, and the whirlwind led him to this weekend and this reunion.
"From 'refired' – excuse me, retired – to this, I don't think anybody would have dreamed this," Arians said. "It's a fairy tale. I hate that to get an opportunity to be a head coach we had to go through what we want through last year, but it was the only way."
Said Pagano of Arians' path to his first head coaching job at age 60, "It's a great country we live in."
"We laugh about it," Pagano said, "but it was long overdue."
Luck admitted that losing his offensive coordinator after just one year "wasn't ideal" and Arians wasn't the only one to move on. Bettcher was close with Pagano and got even closer because of his role with the head coach. Goodwin too had gotten his first real coaching break from Pagano, albeit through Arians because the two had worked in Pittsburgh together. Goodwin said it was hard to leave Indianapolis, but Pagano understood, and Goodwin was promoted to offensive coordinator. Bettcher called Pagano "a second father to me" but also didn't want to pass up the chance to grow as a coach.
Neither would have made the move so easily had they not had faith in Arians, faith shaped by last season in Indianapolis.
"The thing that is special about coach Arians, he is steady as the day is long," Bettcher said. "He's emotional and high energy but he is steady. It's never too great but it's never too bad. That's how you build something that lasts."
Which is exactly what Arians is trying to do in Arizona. In vastly different circumstances, Arians once again has put a team many did not think could be a playoff contender into playoff contention. That backdrop alone would have made this game important, but it remains so much more.
"Last year was very special," Arians said. "(Sunday) there will be a lot of hugging and high-fiving, and then, just like playing your brother in your backyard, 'I'm kicking your ass.' "
"Obviously, we want to get to 7-4 for a number of reasons," Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "One of them is for (Bruce)."
Goodwin referred to the "brothers" he will meet up with before kickoff. Those bonds are sealed and for life, regardless of what the outcome will be. Some things remain with you forever, and the lessons learned of that journey in Indy still echo through Arians' coaching process.
"You learn what coming together really means," Arians said. "I heard Darnell (Dockett) say it last week – this team cares about each other. The camaraderie means more than the wins and losses. With that comes a level not of respect but of accountability with each other: 'I'm not letting you down.'
"That's what we had last year and I feel that very strongly on this team already."